The Looming Storm
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 116 mins.
Director: Dong Yue 董越.
Relentlessly moody visuals score over the human drama and whodunit plot.
Changning city, Hunan province, southern China, 2008. Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong) is released from prison after a 10-year sentence and applies for a new ID card. His mind goes back to early 1997, when he was head of security at Changning No. 4 Metal Smelting Works, with his assistant Liu Chuan (Zheng Wei). Due to understaffing, local police chief Zhang (Du Yuan) had asked his help in a serial-murder case that had so far involved three young women whose bodies had been dumped near the river. Cocky and eager to please, Yu Guowei had conducted his own investigation, interviewing a middle-aged woman (Liu Tao) at a popular pick-up spot who had seen the latest victim as well as a man who used to come to the dances there. Yu Guowei had been chosen as a model worker for the year 1996-97; his colleagues had said he should leave to join the police force but he’d claimed he was happy where he was. Outside work, Yu Guowei had been friendly with Yanzi (Jiang Yiyan), a dance-hall girl who dreamed of moving to Hong Kong after the takeover in the summer and setting up a hairdressing salon there. After another body had turned up, Yu Guowei had found some keys by the river and posted a photo of them outside a steel works; an employee there took the bait, but Yu Guowei and Liu Chuan lost him after giving chase. Liu Chuan had suffered a fall and later died. Subsequently, Yu Guowei had helped Yanzi open a hairdressing salon in the same backstreet where the victims were thought to have been selected. Unknown to her, he had watched the salon, and one night spotted a man whom he thought was the one he almost caught at the steel works.
The weather scores over the human drama in The Looming Storm 暴雪将至, a noirish murder mystery set in a rundown industrial city in the mid-1990s where the incessant rain and grey skies cast their spell over everything. Part study of Mainland life as the old economic system was on its last legs, part crime drama reflecting a sense of hopelessness as that change starts to take effect, it’s a superficially striking debut as writer-director by Dong Yue 董越 that finally doesn’t satisfy as either a human drama or as a whodunit. Despite a strong cast led by Duan Yihong 段奕宏 as a wannabe detective and Jiang Yiyan 江一燕 as a dance-hall girl with dreams in her eyes, Storm is too often arty for its own sake at the expense of plotting and emotion. Coincidentally released a week before another noirish crime yarn starring Duan – mine drama Explosion 引爆者 (2017) – it flopped with a blah RMB27 million.
Dong, 41, graduated from Beijing Film Academy as a d.p. and largely worked in advertising between occasional work on films, such as the Shaanxi-set youth movie The Journey Away 伟大的伟 (2009). As might be expected, his visual sense is strong, enabled by the almost monochrome widescreen photography of Cai Tao 蔡涛, camera operator on the grungy Beijing Flickers 有种 (2012) as well as d.p. on the excellent legal drama 12 Citizens 十二公民 (2014) and on the comfort-women documentary Twenty Two 二十二 (2015). From rainy streets with hooded passers-by to a muddy chase through a dank factory and railway yard, the film conjures up an atmospheric portrait of a dead-end city with declining state-owned factories and an epidemic of serial murders that even police chief Zhang (drily played by TV veteran Du Yuan 杜源) can’t wait to get away from. All except, that is, Duan’s cocky anti-hero, a factory security head who’s been voted a Model Worker and sees a major opportunity when Zhang asks him to help the understaffed bureau with the murders of three young women.
One of the Mainland’s most distinctive middle-generation actors, with a tough-guy edge, Duan (Wind Blast 西风烈, 2010; White Deer Plain 白鹿原, 2012; The Dead End 烈日灼心, 2015; Extraordinary Mission 非凡任务, 2017) here hits a lightly comic note in the early going as the eager but fumbling police aide who becomes obsessed with solving the crimes. Things turn darker, however, in the second half as his ambition extends to using his kind-of girlfriend (Jiang) as bait, under the guise of helping her escape the dance hall to set up a hairdressing salon. It’s here that Dong’s screenplay starts to hit a wall, unable to develop either the pair’s relationship or the crime plot to a meaningful and suspenseful climax. An undervalued actress who’s capable of much more than sad, misty-eyed beauty when given the chance – witness One Summer with You 与你同在的夏天 (2004), I Phone You 爱封了 (2011), The Vanished Murderer 消失的凶手 (2015), Seventy-Seven Days 七十七天 (2017) – Jiang simply gives a good account of a role that’s never fully integrated into the drama, especially in the throwaway finale that’s all focused on Duan’s character.
Other actors are strong down the line, from the security head’s young assistant played by Zheng Wei 郑伟, through the police chief’s snarky sidekick of Zheng Chuyi 郑楚一, to a small but nicely ambiguous role of a middle-aged witness by Liu Tao 刘桃. Technical credits are also strong, from the soundtrack of dripping rain and industrial sounds to the cold, almost metallic scoring by Ding Ke 丁可 (Port of Call 踏雪寻梅, 2015). But a bit less of the relentless moodiness and a bit more dramatic structure and ebb-and-flow could have earned Storm at least another point. Locations were in the cities of Hengyang and Loudi, Hunan province, southern China.
Presented by Wuxi Bainian Haoyun Pictures (CN), Hehe (Shanghai) Pictures (CN), Beijing Time Happy Culture & Communication (CN), Beijing Biaozhun Yingxiang Cultural Communication (CN), Yunzhi Pictures (Shanghai) (CN), Bainian Xinghuo Pictures (Tianjin) (CN), Khorgos Qingqing Cultural Communication (CN), Khorgos Black Ant Pictures (CN).
Script: Dong Yue. Photography: Cai Tao. Editing: Wen Jing. Music: Ding Ke. Art direction: Liu Qiang. Styling: Liu Qiang, Li Hua. Sound: Long Xiaozhu, Zhang Jinyan. Action: An Wande. Visual effects: A Donglin. Executive direction: Jiang Shaodong.
Cast: Duan Yihong (Yu Guowei), Jiang Yiyan (Yanzi), Du Yuan (Zhang, police captain), Zheng Wei (Liu Chuan, Yu Guowei’s assistant), Zheng Chuyi (Li, Zhang’s assistant), Zhang Lin (Song Jun), Liu Tao (woman at dance), Chen Gang (lorry driver), Su Yujie (Dongzi), Zhang Penghao (secretary), Li Xianliang (Hu), Zhou Wei (Da Zou), Cao Bo (Li Feng), Zhao Ziyan (Xiaoyong), Guo Jiulong (caretaker), Yu Chun (Hou, factory head), Jiang Zhongshan (party secretary), Li Honglei (Jin).
Premiere: Tokyo Film Festival (Competition), 29 Oct 2017.
Release: China, 17 Nov 2017.